China: one in 1.3 billion

My knowledge of Chinese literature is pretty non-existent, so I was very grateful when translator Nicky Harman offered to talk me through some of the options last month. We met in a coffee shop in Covent Garden, where, sandwiched between groups of students and tourists planning expeditions to Oxford Street, Harman shared some of her insights into books from the world’s most populous country, which is home to a fifth of the planet’s people.

She said that, while a wide range of literature was published in China, a very narrow spectrum of works were available in English. These tended to be rather depressing, violent and, as she put it, ‘masculine’ books, which often made for heavy-going reading. She hoped that Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this year would start to change this by increasing the appetite for publishing a greater variety of Chinese books around the world.

In the meantime, however, Harman did have some tips for me. If I didn’t mind hard-hitting books, Mian Mian’s Candy was a good bet, while Mo Yan’s short story collection Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh rung the changes, being both comic and tragic. In addition, Yan Ge (not to be confused with Yan Geling), a young, witty, female writer who Harman said was like a modern Jane Austen, was one to watch. Her work was not translated yet, but would hopefully be available in English soon. The same was true of Xu Zechen, whose short story ‘Throwing Out the Baby’ had been published on Words Without Borders.  In terms of non-fiction, the work of Xue Xinran was well worth looking out for.

In amongst Harman’s recommendations, however, one title stood out: Han Dong’s Banished!. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising, given that Harman had translated the novel herself; nevertheless I couldn’t help being intrigued by her description of the book, which, by the sound of it, provided an unusual – even quirky – perspective on the events of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. My interest was also piqued by the translator’s comment that the structure of the book, which reads like a memoir, with each chapter devoted to a different character in the village, reflected a popular tradition in Chinese fiction. I decided it would be the book for me.

Drawing on Han’s personal history, the novel portrays the banishment of the Tao family from the city of Nanjing to the village of Sanyu during the late 1960s. Required to ‘learn from the poorer and lower middle peasants’ as part of Mao Zedong’s attempt to erase capitalism and culture from the country, Grandma and Grandpa Tao, writer Tao and his wife Su Qun, and their son, young Tao, must make new lives for themselves. But, while they try to do the best they can with the meagre resources available to them, they must also take care not to do too well and arouse the jealousy of their impoverished and poorly educated neighbours: as objects of suspicion because of Tao’s intellectual past, their best hope lies in striking root and blending in with their drab, new surroundings.

Sinister undercurrents flow through the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then to flood the characters’ lives. From the bleak prospects Tao foresees for his young son and his fear that his wages might be stopped by the Party, to the investigation that makes Su Qun contemplate suicide and young Tao’s memory of the ransacked buildings he saw in Nanjing, there is an underlying sense of the threat hidden in the smallest and most apparently innocuous of decisions.

Most striking of all, however, is not the precariousness of the Tao’s situation, but its strangeness. Little details, such as the ‘good-news troupe’ marshalled to cheer the banished families on their way and the era’s unfamiliar jargon, reveal the profound oddness of the time, as does six-year-old Tao’s misplaced excitement at the initial hurly-burly of the Revolution and his proud boast that ‘our family’s got a bad egg too, and he’s been struggled against’. Indeed, as the anonymous narrator reminds us, the period is in many ways every bit as strange to contemporary Chinese readers as it is to Westerners:

‘I can only sincerely apologize to my young readers or those from another world. The world I describe here was, after all, a peculiar and transitory one, constructed of language that enshrouded and permeated it with what Buddhists call anitya, a mysterious impermanence.’

In the face of such ephemerality, the Taos ground themselves in the rituals of their new lives, devising strategies for survival. These often involve negotiating their way round the alien traditions of their neighbours – from finding a way to decline a proposal to involve young Tao in a childhood betrothal, to trying to outwit the hungry villagers who want to kidnap and eat their pet dogs. However, there are also moments of joy as we share in young Tao’s adventures in his rural surroundings and the family members’ satisfaction at being able to improve their living conditions through their ingenuity. Indeed, the little domestic triumphs of excluding draughts, drawing water and making adequate sanitary arrangements are so engrossing that we are a long way into the narrative before we realise quite what ‘Mr Tao Peiyi, the professional writer’, now ‘forbidden to write his own books’, has lost in the move to this remote region.

The result is a moving consideration of storytelling and the power of human beings to take charge of their identities in even the bleakest of circumstances. Through watching the Taos carve out a life that allows them to retain something of their sense of dignity and purpose in the face of an attempt to erase individuality, distinctiveness and creativity, we see the marvellous resilience of the human mind. Surprising, and rather wonderful.

Banished! by Han Dong, translated from the Mandarin by Nicky Harman (University of Hawaii Press, 2009)

There is just one day left until the Rest of the World poll closes. Vote now to choose which book I should read!

35 responses

  1. Pingback: Translator Nicky Harman speaks to Han Dong | Peony Moon

  2. You’ve done something no one ever did before! It’s ambitious & courageous. As a Chinese reader, I would recommend Dream of the Red Chamber, which you have listed yet given little comment on it. The book has two popular English translation versions: one is by David Hawkes; the other is by the Chinese couple Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi. I would say that no bother to read other books except this one to get a truly and close idea of China, If I was asked to give a comment on the book. Yet the book is in large volume and you shall have patience if you want to read it.

  3. As a Chinese citizen and literature buff, I read many books about the depressed “revolution” during that decade, I haven’t try reading this one and now it is on my list. Thank you for sharing your experience and I was truly touched. My family share the similar experience with the Tao’s family. Your comments remind me of the bitter and sweet stories during of my parents and my grand parents that period, which is being hidden behind the peaceful life today.

  4. As a chinese college fresh man,it occured me that i had little idea about thoes authors&their books.
    How ridiculous.During my past 18 years,i always thought what i read was enough.In fact ,it’s so narrow and ignorant.Thought the TED,i found the web and left the reply.GGS,DDU:)

  5. Have you read A Dream of Red Mansions/ The Story of the Stone? It`s like THE chinese novel and a must-read for all Chinese. It would be so cool if you could share your thoughts about this novel. And there`s this Ming dynasty novel A Plum in a Golden Vase, influenced the writing of A Dream greatly, banned and extremely popular in China.

      • Ann, I watahed your TED video just now, It’s inspiring.thank you. A Dream of Red Mansion is challenging for a foreigner. As a linguistics postgraduate,I can hardly imagine how the translation was done. I am surprised that Lunyu(The Analects of Confucius) was not on your list. It’s an account of Confucius,written by his students.It’s a must-read for Chinese students.I think you can easily find a translation version in London, you cannot miss it. Good luck.

  6. hi Miss Ann Morgan,so nice to get your info after I watched your talk on TED.What you are doing is so great!
    I am in Beijing now,as a writer and ex-editor and a book-lover,I am sure that I will be your great helpful to understand a real China by reading the books I recommend.

  7. Hello Ann, as a native Chinese speaker, I will strongly recommend A Dream of Red Chamber/Mansion as others do. However, I noticed that no one has mentioned any any ancient Chinese plays. Therefore I’d like to recommend Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu(probably the greatest playwright in ancient China) and Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren(a descendant of Confucius’ ). These are the scripts of Qunqu Opera, hope you enjoy them.

  8. I’d like to recommend you The annimal,the human/Zhong Ming,it’s about annimals and myth with very interesting language.

  9. Moved by your idea and what you have done, and I know these from TED.
    China has a long history and so many good writers. By giving that only one book shoule be selected, it’s real a tough decison, but I’d love to share my view.
    As a native Chinese, finally, I would recommand LuXun who is a literature and thinker from 1881 to 1936. Nearly every Chinese student will learn 1~2 piece of his articles each year from the textbook. During those days, the unhappiest thing was that we had to recite some paragraphs of the article and so we dislaked him. But As time goes by, we gradually know why he is beyond a literature and what we had recited are all treasures. His viewpoint is so profound and his writing is so fascinating.
    His book, call to arms & Wandering(English version), is available on Amazon and many our unhappy memories are picked from here. You should note that the translator should be Yang XianYi. Though I haven’t read the book, Yang was a famous translator who had translated A Dream in Red Mansions(The second book I recommand, and it has already been recommanded by others) and so this version is maybe worth reading.
    Hope you enjoy it. And thanks for sharing the list.

  10. Before I came here to share my recommendation,I know you by a Chinese scholar Liang wendao(HongKong),he is also a media person.I am also a Chinese native,Form my stand,now the most talented Chinese writer is JIa pingwa.But he uses the traditional Chinese language even some shannxi accent.So its hard for a translator to present that rhythm and accent.

  11. Fortunately I saw this site in 2020. When I read, I found that different translators have a certain bias towards the translated text, which caused me to spend a lot of time finding a suitable translation. Sometimes I almost give up, I see your story today and I have the strength to continue. Sorry, my English is not good. I use Google Translate.

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